The decline of the fuddy-duddy Indian manager

Traditional managerial roles are vanishing.
Traditional managerial roles are vanishing.
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shino
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The Indian manager’s magic is slowly waning.

Earlier in June, Tata Motors, India’s largest auto company (by revenue), took a call to do away with roles like general manager, senior general manager, and deputy general manager to turn itself into a flatter organisation. The move came after the carmaker laid off 1,500 managerial-level employees in another round of restructuring in May 2017. In all, the hierarchy levels at Tata Motors will collapse to five, from 14 currently.

This isn’t a solitary case. Across India’s corporate landscape, managers are under pressure. Broadly, there are two factors at play. First, companies are looking to make organisation structures flatter. So, many are doing away with layers of hierarchy. The expectation is that managers will now lead specific functions, rather than just manage people.

The second factor is the rise of automation, especially in the information technology (IT) sector. With many processes getting automated and new technologies coming in, employees will need to re-skill and up-skill themselves. Those at the managerial level are the first to feel the heat. These workers, experts say, will have to unlearn old skills and learn new ones, which might be tedious for those who have been on the job for over 15 years.

Leaner and better

Traditionally, Indian firms have been packed with layer-upon-layer of hierarchy. The model may have worked at some point, but it also slows down decision-making and communication.

Over the last few years, with a lukewarm economy, Indian firms have started focusing on shedding the flab from their organisational structures. That helped create flatter organisations, as fewer new jobs were created and companies looked to streamline existing roles.

From one perspective, traditional firms are moving towards a structure that resembles startups. ”Managers need to change from a generalist to a specialist role,” said Alka Dhingra, general manager at Teamlease, an HR services firm.

These changes would also require managers to re-examine how they deal with their teams. Managers will have to move away from a “paternalistic approach” to a role that is more like a mentor and guide, said Amit Nandkeolyar, a professor of organisational research at the Indian School of Business. “The top-down approach is not necessarily going to be the best one going forward. Managers will have to give their team members more responsibility and autonomy,” he said.

Flatter structures are also likely to become ubiquitous as automation takes hold. In October 2016, the World Bank estimated that some 69% of the jobs in India could be threatened by automation. Some of this transformation is already in evidence. In the IT industry, for instance, project managers will need extensive technology-specific training, which firms like Infosys have already begun.

“These machines are going to solve the problems that have been well-articulated. People have to be the problem finders, people have to be innovators,” Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka said in April (pdf).

Skill, skill, skill

When it comes to the IT industry, Infosys isn’t alone in focusing on re-skilling manager-level employees, who typically have at least a decade of experience.

“For mid-managers, it is necessary to brush up their domain skills because the pure people-management jobs will go down. And companies will critically look at people who aren’t adapting to those changes,” said Sangeeta Gupta, vice-president at Nasscom, the Indian IT industry body.

Over the next five years, India’s IT industry, which employs 3.9 million people, is looking to train (and re-train) some 2 million current and new employees. “The emphasis…is shifting from scale, which was the primary goal earlier, to skills,” Nasscom president R Chandrashekhar said earlier this year.

“Not only are firms looking at training new hires in the changing technologies, they are focusing on longer-term re-skilling and up-skilling,” said Rishabh Kaul, co-founder of Belong, a tech-based recruitment platform. “That’s because training freshers is easy, but those in the higher hierarchies would need a different approach.”

Managers, too, are realising the need to stay relevant. At Simplilearn, an online platform that has trained over 500,000 professionals globally, there are two major cohorts who sign up to learn new technologies: freshers and managers. “We see a lot of people in their mid-30s with experience between 10 and 20 years who are genuinely concerned about the new skills they have to learn, especially in areas like big data, cloud computing, and security,” said Kashyap Dalal, chief business officer of the San Francisco and Bengaluru-based company.

The era of the Indian manager, sitting in a swivel chair and managing people, is nearing its end.